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We’ve interviewed Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier and author of ‘The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work‘. We discuss his experience with remote working and running a distributed company. We go into the tools, processes and hiring practices necessary to succeed with remote working, as well as some of the drawbacks and challenges that come along with it.
Content and Timings
- Introduction (0:00)
- About Wade and Zapier (0:20)
- Remote Working at Zapier (1:17)
- Successful Remote Working Processes (4:07)
- Tools for Remote Working (5:25)
- Characteristics of the Best Remote Employees (6:47)
- The Drawbacks of Remote Working (11:27)
- Recommended Resources (14:00)
Wade Foster is Co-founder & CEO at Zapier, a YC alum company founded in 2011. Zapier is a distributed company, with 25 employees spread around the world. Wade wrote the book, ‘The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work’, in which he provides advice from his experience with remote working. Welcome Wade, why don’t you share a bit about yourself?
About Wade and Zapier
I’m one of the three co-founders and the CEO here at Zapier. We started it about a little over three years ago now really just to help hook up apps for small businesses. There are so many apps out there today. We hook into over 400 and we’re not even close to having support for all of them. It allows non-programmers, non-technical folks to just do simple automation between apps we normally use.
For example, if you use a tool like Trello which listeners are probably aware of, you can do things like create a recurring Trello card in there or you can email in cards to create Trello cards. Or you could say when someone fills out this Wufoo form, it should automatically create a card in Trello. It just hooks up into all these different systems, so that you can make Trello work a lot nicer with things.
It doesn’t just work with Trello. It works with all the tools that you’re probably familiar with like Dropbox, Gmail, MailChimp, SalesForce, the list goes on. That’s kind of the gist of Zapier.
Remote Working at Zapier
Zapier has always been a distributed company from the outset. Why is this, and how has it worked for you whilst you’ve grown?
So, when we started, Brian, Mike and I all lived in the same place. We were in Columbia, Missouri, but we still had day jobs. Mike was still in school. Zapier started as a side project. It just doesn’t make sense when you have limited time with a side project, it doesn’t make sense like, “Let’s all wait until we’re all hanging out in the same room looking right at each other to work on this project.” We said the thing that just makes sense is when we have time, let’s try and make as much progress as we could. We’d do that at nights from our homes, from coffee shops, from the library. Sometimes we’d meet together and work on something or at each other’s houses or whatever.
That was definitely the exception to the rule. It was like that for the first nine months or so. Then we got into YC and we actually for the only time in Zapier’s history, the three of us worked in the same place together. After YC ended, Mike, we’d moved out to California for YC and then after it ended, Mike moved back to Missouri because his then girlfriend, now wife was in law school and he wanted to be with her. Then we hired a guy to do support in Chicago, so it was kind of like ‘hey, this just seems like the way we’re going to do things’. Really, it’s kind of like this remote, distributed asynchronous workplace was just kind of baked in from the beginning for us.
So I think it’s definitely allowed us to hire people that we’ve worked with. In the beginning, we hired people that we worked with before. That we knew were good. They didn’t necessarily live in the same place. We were able to hire good people and there was kind of like this built in trust where we didn’t have to go recruit people from scratch who we had never worked with, we weren’t sure if it’s going to work out or not, which would have been tough for us because in California we had just moved there. We didn’t know anybody really. It felt like taking a huge chance on people.
Early on we got to work with people that we knew were going to be great because we had already worked with them and they were great. It didn’t matter where they lived. Then as we’ve grown it’s certainly been a benefit to be able to add on. We started hiring people that we don’t know. We have a standard interview process. Things like that. It works out really great because we get to work with people who are super smart all over the world. It helps with just really kind of random silly stuff too, like our support team in spread all over the world, so we’re pretty close to having 24 hour support, which is something that very little tech teams have.
From a DevOps perspective we have people who are around the world, so like if the site’s having issues, you don’t have to wake up at 3AM to fix it because it’s someone else’s lunchtime and they can help fix it. There’s this nice convenience when you have people when you can set your stuff up to where everyone is working all over the world and get to use the timezone diversity kind of to your advantage.
Successful Remote Working Processes
How has working remotely impacted the processes you use to get work done?
I think process is actually really important. A lot of early companies kind of think that hinders their creativity or whatever, but I think for a remote team it’s really important because and if you’re co-located you can get away with not having it because you can always just yell across the room and say, “Hey dude, this thing or whatever.”
In a remote team, people aren’t in the same time zone, so they may not be able to have access to you right at that right time. That means you need to make sure that documentation is really, really good. From the outset you’re making sure that the documentation’s good, you’re making sure that information is available, so having public Dropbox accounts, having an internal wiki, having Slack or HipChat or something so that there’s these public logs of stuff that’s going on. Your code is well documented. All that stuff is really important because it allows people to get their jobs done in the absence of help being around right that very instant.
That’s why I think process is really important, it really provides the groundwork for people to self-serve, do their job even if they don’t necessarily have a person there to answer a question for them. They do have information there that they can go do some research and figure out the answer themselves.
Tools for Remote Working
What tools do you think are key to supporting remote work?
So there’s a handful of tools that we use. I don’t think the actual tool is as important as the category of tool. Like you probably need one of these tools in your tool bag.
For instance we use Slack for our group chat. You could just as easily use HipChat or Campfire or something. They’re both great as well. We use Trello for lightweight project management. We have an internal blog/Reddit style tool that we call Async that we built that we use to replace internal emails. There’s really no internal email at Zapier to speak of. Then we use GitHub for our code hosting and issue management. Then Help Scout is for support and other external email I guess that comes into Zapier. Really that’s all we use on the tools side of things.
Occasionally we’re on Google Hangout or GoToMeeting or whatever. Not much other than that. We bake in other tools like from here to there. Certain individuals will use a different tool for something. They might use Zapier to pull it into the main tools. However we try and keep it pretty light on tools because that’s just one less thing for people. Oh, HackPad, that’s another one that we use all the time. We use that for all our internal documentation and it’s pretty slick.
Characteristics of the Best Remote Employees
Zapier is growing quickly, what should people consider when hiring remote employees?
I think probably the most important thing with remote work is that you’re able to trust these people. Even if you don’t know someone, do you feel comfortable with them enough to give them just free reign? Do you trust that if I can’t see you, I know that you’re going to be getting stuff done? What that means is that the types of people that I feel like even though I don’t know them, that I can trust them are ones that come in and they show like whether in their past projects that they’ve taken a lot of initiative. Maybe that means that they’ve done side projects or they’ve gone above and beyond current work. Somehow they’ve shown I’m not just going to do the lowest bar. I’m going to do extra stuff on the side.
That’s the kind of person who just in the absence of I guess direction is just going to find stuff to do and find interesting problems and tackle them. I think that’s really key. The second thing is how well do they communicate via written words? Are their email correspondence with us early on in the conversation, are they being crystal clear? Do they know how to schedule a meeting in different timezones? It’s kind of a silly thing to know, but if you screw that up, that’s kind of shows that you’re not really hooked into how this sort of stuff will work.
People who have done freelance work or contract work are also pretty good because they’ve had to work with… Set their own schedules. They’ve had to deal with clients externally. They’ve had to deliver expectations to people. There’s a lot more knowns with those types of people. Those are some things that I think are pretty important. Then of course they need to have all the other stuff that a great teammate would have, right? You want someone that’s not a jerk. You want someone that can walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes. Who’s not going to have a huge ego. That stuff that you would want whether you work remotely or not. On top of that you really want to have the good communication skills and you want them to have to have the initiative to go above and beyond and not have to wait for instructions I guess.
One of the things I think is really key too for new teammates is that they need to have an outside social group. If you’re the type of person that’s used to your work colleagues being also your social colleagues, that’s probably not going to be… Remote work is probably not going to be a great fit for you. You want to be able to have family or friends or something else in your physical world so that when work ends, you can actually go out and socialize with a real human being from time to time. I think that’s pretty important to help mitigate, like feeling too remote or isolated from the rest of the world. You want to make sure that you’ve got that outside network that’s not tied to your job.
Company culture is key to the continued success of any company. How can you build a great working culture whilst working remotely?
Tools like Slack and HipChat make it pretty easy. A lot of our, we have fun with memes and gifs and stuff inside of Slack. It takes on, you see how culture evolves inside of internet communities, like Reddits, sub-Reddits or Hacker News or some other forum that you may be a part of. You’ve seen how culture develops.
It’s kind of similar to that in a remote team. You have to make sure to foster that a little bit. You make sure that new folks know the rules of the road about ‘hey, it’s kind of okay to be a little edgy’ or maybe we’re not a little edgy with how we do stuff inside of our Slack room or whatever. That kind of gets people to kind of know a little bit where the boundaries are without having to be too strict about it.
Then of course we also get together in person a couple times a year. Twice a year we fly everyone out to some location and do a retreat. You get to spend time, see people face to face and you realize ‘hey, this person is the person that I work with and they’re a real human being. They exist in the real world somehow’, which is like it’s pretty important for a team when that’s not a normal occurrence.
It’s actually pretty special too. I find it a lot more exciting to see my teammates at Zapier than when I worked in a co-located facility. It’s a more rare instance. The fact that you get to see someone. I don’t know. It’s a little more exciting. That makes the culture, I guess those face to face meetings help really I guess evolve the culture as well too.
The Drawbacks of Remote Working
What are some of the main drawbacks you’ve experienced from working remotely?
Communication is I think probably the biggest challenge. I think that’s the biggest challenge for even co-located teams. The thing that’s really tricky I guess with communication is when you’re co-located you can be a little bit lazy about it.
You don’t have to be as explicit about who’s doing what or what’s going on because you’re sitting right next to each other, you can see what each other’s working on. Someone starts to get off track you can be like, “Hey, what is that? What’s going on there?” Or if you’ve got some issue you can just shout across the room and say, “Hey Bob, can you help me with this thing?” or whatever.
It allows you to be a little bit lazier. With a remote team you really have to be pretty organized with how things are getting done. You have to know these are the things that people are working on. These projects, these are the most important projects that are getting done right now, so that those key tasks kind of get checked off. If you’re dealing with timezone differences, you kind of know what’s happening so that the person who’s halfway across the world when you’re sleeping, they don’t feel like they’re completely lost about what’s going on or what’s happening.
You need to be really, really, I guess, upfront about what’s happening in your company. The way that we get away with that is just through our internal blog, with public communication, so everything is… anytime you make progress on a thing you post something to the blog saying ‘here’s what’s happening. Here’s what’s going on’. If you have a key question about something you post it to the internal blog. Make something that’s going on.
Any time that you’ve built a new tool or built a new feature you document it inside of our internal docs so that people who come along know how to use it, know what it’s for. There’s no place in Zapier, if you were going to build a feature, if you’re going to do something, there’s no such thing as hiding it or hoarding it to yourself. That’s the worst thing you could do on a remote team. The most important thing is once you have set something up, you need to provide the right links to the tool or the feature or the process or whatever and you need to write documentation around it so that other people know how to use it or modify it or do something with that thing.
I think that’s probably the most critical thing is getting that communication layer right and making sure that new people know that that is a huge priority. That you can’t be lazy about that. It’s like the most important thing that you could do. I think that’s certainly, that’s probably the biggest challenge with remote teams is just getting that communication layer right.
What are some resources you can recommend for those interested in finding out more about how to successfully build a distributed company?
So the book that I wrote, ‘The Ultimate Guide To Remote Work’, I think is pretty good, but in particular the very last chapter of that book has a list of some of my favorite resources that I’ve read. There’s Basecamp, it has their book. Remote 37 Signals, the Remote Book. The team at Treehouse has written dome good stuff. Fog Creek has written some good material on this. Buffer has written some good material on this. There’s lots of interviews with the Automattic team about remote work. I think there’s not a ton of companies doing this, but the ones that are are doing a pretty good job of sharing what’s working well and what’s not working well for them.
I think that’s just really helpful to being able to see what’s worked for others. Especially others that are maybe a little bit bigger than whatever your company’s at right now because as you grow you kind of can guess what the next problems are going to be because they’ve already solved them. That’s super nice. I know for us, the Buffer team I think is exactly a year older than us. They’re just maybe like five to ten people ahead of us in hiring. It’s really nice because and they’re super transparent about everything, so it’s really nice because they ran all their stuff and we just get this nice guidebook of stuff that we should be watching out for next. We don’t use it exactly, don’t copy them exactly, but it’s just nice to know a little bit of what other companies are experiencing.
Thanks for your time today, Wade.
Yeah, thanks for having me.